Mourinho’s risky roll of the dice

‘You want to know the team?” José Mourinho teased, successfully drawing a unified chorus of “Yes!” from the gathered press. “I can say my team and Barça’s team … and the referee.”

He then proceeded to do just that. “Deco, Xavi, Eto’o, Giuly, Ronaldinho …”

The Portuguese manager of Manchester United successfully predicted the First XI Frank Rijkaard would roll out in the 2005 Champions League last 16 mega-clash between Chelsea and Barcelona at Camp Nou. The Blues would ultimately progress to the next round 5-2 on aggregate.

At this point, a few months into his first tenure at the newly rich London outfit, the media were already well acquainted with his polarising brand of bravado. How could they not be, when one of his first actions as manager was famously to declare himself the “Special One”? English football had arguably not experienced such magnetism since the glory days of Brian Clough.

The mind games played with Rijkaard at the time were, however, far from just idle chatter. They represent the power that weapons such as microphones could produce if wielded correctly. Getting under your opposite number’s skin, controlling the narrative, publicly protecting your players … these are as much a modern manager’s job as team talks and substitutions. And no one excelled in those categories like Mourinho.

Fast forward to 2018 and there’s a significantly different figure at the helm at Old Trafford — a figure that, though still sharp-tongued, appears increasingly sulky and bitter. Even years prior to his Manchester United post, the spuriously rechristened “Happy One” began to adopt an increasingly grumpy persona.

Gone are the days of filling the press rooms with rapturous laughter. The jokes and stories of getting drunk with Sir Alex Ferguson are replaced by boorish Arsène Wenger barbs and proclamations that Rafael Benítez’s wife would do well to perform better in the kitchen.

More than anything, his sermons are now permeated with refereeing complaints and excuses — blaming everything and everyone else for bad performances while displaying the self-awareness of a dinner table.

Bemoaning opposition conduct, meanwhile, has been hilariously hypocritical. After Antonio Conte celebrated the last goal of a 4-0 thumping last season, Mourinho went into a tirade about the show of disrespect.

No doubt Mourinho’s 2004 knee slide that took him halfway across the Old Trafford pitch during Porto’s famous victory there was in good taste. So was, of course, his zealous jumping jacks after Inter Milan’s 2010 Camp Nou victory that prompted the ground staff to turn on the sprinklers in an effort to get him off the pitch.

Though it’s all fun and games to talk about what a grinch Mourinho has become, it’s increasingly evident that such a divisive attitude is finally beginning to take a toll on pushing out results — and will continue to do so.

The dismissive and negative attitude came to a head this week as he took aim at a legend.

“I think the only thing Paul Scholes does is criticise,” he lashed. “I don’t think he comments, I think he criticises, which is a different thing.” The comments came after the Premier League’s most expensive player, Paul Pogba, received a healthy dollop of disparaging reviews in recent weeks.

“Not every one of us has to be phenomenal like he was as a player. That does not mean that we all have to be phenomenal.”

From there, the tone got a bit more personal.

“It’s not Paul’s fault that he made much more money than Paul Scholes. It’s just the way football is. I think Scholes will be in history as a phenomenal player, not as a pundit. I prefer to look at him as a phenomenal player that gave so much to the club that I am proud to represent.”

Finally, Mourinho pointed out that the former England international could never do what he does.

“If Paul one day decides to be a manager I wish that he can be 25% as successful as myself,” he said. “Fifty percent of that is 12.5 silverware, 25% is around six. If he’s 25%, he’ll be quite happy.”

The snipe is the latest against the group of legends-turned-pundits he calls the “kings of rock ‘n roll” — Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville. “I think they would love to be here. They would love to be at the club and that’s a problem I cannot resolve.”

No doubt Mourinho is well aware of the reverberations that will echo from striking at the pillars on which greatness was propped. The question is 
whether he is wilfully ignoring them or acting in open, deliberate defiance.

Either way, he would do well to remember that United is unlike any other club in England. Over two decades, Ferguson fostered a culture of singularity — one formed by respect and the determination to achieve common goals. There was an absolute understanding throughout the club about what was required and the manner in which it should be achieved. Thirteen Premier League titles means it goes without saying that it was a success.

Anybody who threatened the culture was swiftly dealt with, no matter who it was. Who can forget the kicked-boot-to-the-head incident that ultimately ended in the sale of David Beckham to Real Madrid? In Ferguson’s My Autobiography he confirmed that dissent or disruptive egos would not be tolerated: “The minute a Manchester United player thought he was bigger than the manager, he had to go. David thought he was bigger than Alex Ferguson.

“That was the death knell for him.”

It has been a familiar story throughout his career. Former captain and midfield soldier Roy Keane found himself in front of the exit door after irreparable differences with Ferguson. The fiery Irishman publicly criticising team-mates surely helped to hasten the process.

In 2006, Ruud van Nistelrooy was ushered out after reportedly falling out with a prodigal Cristiano Ronaldo and being a general disruption in the dressing room. The fact that one of the deadliest scorers in the Premier League can be sacrificed for the greater good is a testimony to the club’s philosophy.

It is entirely possible, of course, that Mourinho’s vision would see a similar attitude return to the club. An attitude that would not tolerate second-guessing. Even if it came from the legends’ corner.

It’s a bold but dangerous game to play.

Whereas the egoists were put on planes to Madrid, those who did remain loyal were richly rewarded. Even beyond their playing days, managerial advice from Fergie and coaching positions within the Carrington training ground helped to launch many a post-playing career. When you protect your own you breed loyalty.

By so easily dismissing Giggs and co, Mourinho is making it clear that he’s not interested in accommodating history.

Key to his long-term success will probably be how much patience the board is likely to extend to him while he builds his own legacy. Still reeling from the substandard David Moyes and Louis van Gaal eras, they’re desperate for success. Given that it’s all but guaranteed to be a second season with no league title, it’s anybody’s guess how much more time the Portuguese has. If those upstairs view the attacks on virtual institutions such as Scholes as an affront then that time may tick faster.

Given the need for immediacy, Mourinho would never have the luxury of dismissing a player of anywhere close to Van Nistelrooy’s calibre. Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Conte are all ruthlessly building their squads and taking them forward. United players must perform and perform now lest they be left behind as an afterthought in the league.

Rocking the boat can yield fruit for Mourinho but he must be sure it remains on course for glory. The season started well enough for him until City began to flex their muscles and expose the Manchester gap in quality.

He is still safe but should United begin to drift further away he may start to feel the noose begin to tighten. At that point, when the walls begin to close in, he may regret that the “kings of rock ‘n roll” will be all too eager to help to carry him to the gallows.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.


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